Delivering Your Speech: How to Make an Impact

What is the key to delivering a truly great speech? What do all great speakers have in common?

When it comes to delivering your speech, how you present yourself is just as important as what you say. If you want to give a truly great speech, it isn’t enough to have the perfect words, strategies, and setup—you also need stage presence. The way you present yourself makes the difference between a forgettable speech and one that leaves your audience inspired.

Here are some things to keep in mind.

Wardrobe

What you wear on stage sets the tone for your talk before a single word comes out of your mouth; it’s the audience’s first impression of you. Anderson points out that wardrobe is one factor of your speech that is completely within your control and that you can decide as far in advance as you want. 

In this section, Anderson hands the “mic” to TED’s content director, Kelly Stoetzel, because he admits that he’s not an expert on wardrobe decisions. (Shortform note: In May of 2021, Stoetzel left TED after 17 years there. She’s now an executive for Clubhouse, a social media app based on voice.) 

As content director, Stoetzel sent wardrobe recommendations to all of the TED speakers. We have distilled her advice into seven guidelines.

7 Rules for Your Performance Wardrobe

  1. Above all, dress in something that makes you feel great. This means something that is physically comfortable and also makes you feel confident. This is not the time to try out a new style—you want to feel like the best version of yourself. 
  2. Dress slightly more formally than the audience. Before speaking, find out how the audience will be dressing. Are you speaking at a black-tie event or will the audience be in shorts and t-shirts? You don’t want to look overly casual, or as if you’re trying too hard, so a good rule of thumb is to be slightly more dressed up than your audience.
  3. Avoid accessories that make noise. Jangly bracelets, dangling earrings, and high heels or boots may not seem loud in a normal setting, but a microphone will amplify them. Even if you’re speaking to a smaller group without a mic, any extra noise is going to distract the audience from your speaking.
  4. Avoid black, white, and small patterns if the speech is being video recorded. On video, bright white clothes will blow out the shot, jet black clothing make you look like a “talking head,” and small patterns create a distracting shimmer effect. Stoetzel says bold, solid colors almost always work well.
  5. Consider where your microphone will go. Are you going to have a microphone clipped to your lapel, over the ear, or on your waistband? Ask the coordinator so you can plan your outfit accordingly.
  6. Practice your speech in the outfit. An outfit might be great in theory, but you won’t know if it’s good for your talk until you move around in it. Wear the exact outfit, down to the undergarments, to pinpoint any problems you might run into on the day of your talk.
  7. If you’re traveling, bring a clothes steamer. Delivering your speech in wrinkled clothes is unacceptable—the audience will get an immediate impression that you either don’t care about the event or didn’t plan properly. Hotel irons are unpredictable, so Stoetzel recommends you travel with a small clothes steamer.

Voice and Movement

In this section, Anderson explains what to do with your voice and body to be as enigmatic as possible while speaking. The best speech in the world will fall flat if the speaker doesn’t appear genuine and passionate. He offers three techniques to ensure that you bring your best self to the stage:

  1. Speak with inflection, but avoid orating.
  2. Vary the speed of your voice.
  3. Move your body in a way that’s natural. 

(Shortform note: There is danger in rehearsing specific gestures and body language—the audience can unconsciously recognize that your movements are precalculated, and this will cause them to question your authenticity. Even though the audience knows you’ve written and rehearsed a speech, body language interpretations happen instantly and often without conscious thought. As you read through the suggestions about body language in this section, allow them to marinate in your mind and come out naturally rather than using them as a blueprint.) 

Technique #1: Speak With Inflection

Nobody wants to listen to a robot. Anderson argues that a speech without emotion and inflection will accomplish the same (if not less) than if you emailed your words to the audience. To inspire your listeners, use your voice to show them which parts are important. When should they be angry? When should they feel sympathy? Guide them with your voice. If, while rehearsing, you struggle with where to add inflection, Anderson offers a strategy: 

  • Underline the most important sentences in your speech. When you’re practicing your speech and see this, put a stronger emphasis into your voice. 
  • Double underline the most important words and put even more emphasis there
  • Draw a wavy line under the less important sentences. These ones you can breeze through casually while speaking. 
  • Put a blob of ink before the biggest moment in your speech and use it as an indicator to add a dramatic pause. 

Anderson suggests that you record yourself using these strategies, listen to how you sound, and make adjustments accordingly.

Avoid Orating

While emotion and emphasis are important in a speech, Anderson strongly warns against oration. To “orate” is to speak in a grandiose manner—slowly, loudly, and with many dramatic pauses. Anderson says many people believe this type of speaking is authoritative and inspirational, but there are few occasions when it’s appropriate. 

Some of the most famous speeches in history were orations. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream,” and John F. Kennedy’s “Why Go to the Moon?” speeches were both recited in this manner. Anderson explains that some situations are primed for orations—church sermons or social justice rallies, for example. He adds, however, that most topics don’t warrant this type of speaking and will come across as arrogant or gimmicky. This is especially true if the audience doesn’t know who you are.

Anderson recommends you opt instead for a more conversational tone. It’s relatable to the audience and forges a genuine connection. Casual speaking also translates better on video, so keep this in mind if your speech is going to be recorded.

Technique #2: Vary Your Speed

Anderson disagrees with the conventional wisdom to slow down when you’re giving a speech. Between speaking too quickly and speaking too slowly, he says the latter is more dangerous because you risk boring your audience and losing their attention. Speaking too slowly can also insult their intelligence, he adds. So rather than trying to slow down, focus on changing up the speed of your speech. The fluctuation will help keep your audience’s attention and will also help them comprehend the content.  

If you’re not sure which parts of your speech should be fast or slow, Anderson offers some general rules:

  • When you’re telling an anecdote, speak more quickly because the information is easy to take in and process. 
  • When you’re explaining a concept, slow down so the audience has time to digest and comprehend the information.
  • Add a few pauses to highlight important points or to allow the audience time for laughter.

Technique #3: Move (Or Don’t) in a Natural Way

Anderson acknowledges that some people feel more comfortable moving while speaking, and others feel less so. For this reason, he doesn’t prescribe one or the other, but he does give some tips to try and pitfalls to avoid for both.

If you prefer to walk, Anderson recommends you do so in a relaxed and natural way. When you make an important point, it’s a powerful method to stop walking, face the audience, and pause for a moment before resuming. This variety of walking and stopping can be an effective way to use your body. (Shortform note: Experts warn that too much walking can be distracting, but they encourage crossing the stage during the lighter moments of your speech and transitions between segments.)

If you prefer to stand, Anderson recommends keeping your weight evenly distributed between both feet. Avoid leaning to one side, continually shifting your weight, or rocking forward and backward. Those movements can be very distracting. Keep good posture in your spine and shoulders and use your hands to gesture to the audience from time to time. (Shortform note: This isn’t to say that you should stand still like a statue. Natural shifting of your weight is okay; rhythmic movement will draw the eye. You can also gesticulate with your upper body to keep from looking and feeling stiff.)   

If you prefer to sit (or need to because of a physical constraint) this is okay as well. Anderson emphasizes that there are no hard and fast rules about standing or sitting during a speech. Whichever method of movement (or stillness) that you choose, he stresses that it only be done in a natural way. (Shortform note: With the recent increase in video conferencing, it’s more common than ever to sit while presenting. In this instance, focus on posture (sitting straight with shoulders back) to display confidence, and use hand gestures and facial expressions for emphasis and emotion.)

Anderson suggests you record yourself giving your speech and pay specific attention to how you move your body. Ask your practice audience if anything you did with your body was distracting or off-putting, and make adjustments accordingly.

Confidence: Managing Your Nerves

This final section is not about how to eliminate nerves, but instead how to make your nerves work for you. Whether you’re a seasoned speaker or not, Anderson says adrenaline comes with the territory. He explains that adrenaline will give you energy and animate your voice, which can be great for your speech. However, in large doses, it can also make you shaky, give you dry mouth, and cause anxiety. 

The following are five ways that Anderson says you can manage your adrenaline and project confidence:

1) Eat something healthy. About an hour before your speech, have a small and healthy meal—even if your nerves convince you that you’re not hungry. You don’t want to be hungry on stage for two reasons: First, you don’t want the audience to hear a growling stomach. Second, adrenaline on an empty stomach can make you feel sick. (Shortform note: Avoid any new foods or spicy foods the day before your speech, as they may upset your stomach or induce an allergic reaction. In the hours leading up to your speech, avoid dairy products as they often cause excess phlegm, which will affect your voice.)

2) Do something physical. If your adrenaline is high enough to make you shaky, do something physical to get rid of the excess. Push-ups, jumping jacks, or a quick lap around the building will help bring your adrenaline down to a manageable level. (Shortform note: Anderson doesn’t say how far in advance you should do this, but we can infer that you should allow for enough cool-down time that you won’t be out of breath when you walk onto the stage.)

3) Hydrate. Five minutes before you speak, drink five or six ounces of water. This is enough to keep dry mouth at bay but not enough to fill your bladder. Have a bottle of water with you during your speech in case your mouth gets dry again. (Shortform note: Even if you’re hydrated, your mouth can still get dry because of nerves. For the stage, experts recommend that you stick to flat, room temperature water—cold water restricts the vocal cords and carbonated water can induce burping.)

4) Breathe into your stomach. In the minutes before speaking, focus on your breathing. Make sure the oxygen is going all the way down into your stomach (shallow breathing does more harm than good) and hold it for a moment or two before exhaling. (Shortform note: Too much oxygen in the blood raises its pH and leads to dizziness, tingling, anxiety, and chest pain. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, some extra carbon dioxide could cure it. Holding your breath for a few seconds before exhaling (or breathing into a paper bag) will allow your blood’s oxygen-C02 ratio to rebalance.) 

5) Speak to friends in the audience. Find a few friendly faces in the audience, make eye contact, and speak directly to them until your nerves settle. (Shortform note: Picturing your audience in their underwear is an old piece of advice that’s no longer recommended. Not only can it cause you to make a strange facial expression, but it will prevent you from making eye contact (and connecting) with anyone in the audience.)

In addition to these tips, Anderson advises you to remember that the speech is not about you, it’s about your ideas. As you speak, keep this in mind to remain grounded. And if all else fails (if you begin stuttering or your mind goes blank), Anderson says to simply tell the audience you’re nervous. They want to root for you, and admitting that you’re experiencing nerves only makes you more relatable. (Shortform note: Mark Twain is famously quoted as saying, “There are two types of speakers: those who get nervous, and those who are liars.” Nobody in the audience is going to judge you for feeling nervous.)

Delivering Your Speech: How to Make an Impact

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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